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Prevailing-wage repeal down but not out (UPDATE)

Proposal likely to be resurrected as own piece of legislation

Construction unions might think they caught a break this week with top Wisconsin lawmakers’ decision to take a proposal to repeal the state’s remaining prevailing-wage laws out of the state budget.

But the reprieve is not likely to last long.

Republican lawmakers were already discussing plans Friday to introduce the repeal proposal as its own piece of legislation. In yet another option, lawmakers might choose to include the elimination of prevailing wages as part of a grand bargain over the state’s much-debated transportation budget.

A provision calling for repeal of the state’s remaining prevailing-wage laws on state-commissioned projects had been part of the proposed budget that Gov. Scott Walker had presented to lawmakers in February. But the co-chairs of the state’s powerful Joint Finance Commission stripped that provision out on Thursday, along with 82 other “non-fiscal policy items.”

Jessica Ward, chief of staff to state Sen. Leah Vukmir, said Friday that it’s now likely that a proposal to eliminate the state’s remaining prevailing-wage laws will soon be introduced as its own piece of legislation. Vukmir and state Rep. Rob Hutton, both Republicans from Brookfield, have had repeal bills drawn up but have yet to put them forward formally for consideration by the Legislature.

State Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, questioned the reasoning for pulling the prevailing-wage proposal from the budget in the first place. Stroebel noted that many people believe prevailing wages cause the cost of government projects to be artificially inflated.

Since getting rid of prevailing wages could help the state save money, the elimination proposal could have been dealt with in the state budget, Stroebel argued.

“When budgeting, our priority should always be to pass policy reforms that save money through efficiencies,” Stroebel said in a statement. “Prevailing wage does that.”

Separate from prevailing wages, Republican state Sen. Alberta Darling and Republican state Rep. John Nygren called for taking an unusual step with the state’s proposed transportation budget. Rather than using the governor’s own proposals as the starting point for debate, the two co-chairs would have lawmakers begin by looking at this year’s transportation spending and deciding how it should be modified to pay for projects during the next budget period, which will run from July this year to June 2019.

The governor has come under criticism from lawmakers in both parties for putting forward a budget proposal that would put off work on various major projects, including plans to rebuild Interstate 94 between Milwaukee’s Zoo and Marquette interchanges. Walker has responded by saying that he is committed to holding the line on borrowing and avoiding an increase in the state’s gas tax.

Prevailing wages were meanwhile not the only construction-related policies Darling and Nygren recommended for removal from the budget. Also listed in a memo they released Thursday were proposals that would have:

  • kept local governments from using project-labor agreements in a way that critics say prevents nonunion companies from bidding on public contracts;
  • allowed the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to test the Construction Manager/General Contractor project-delivery system on three projects between this summer and July 1, 2021;
  • set up an independent Occupational License Review Council to review the certifications needed to work in various trades and professions and would have recommended elimination for requirements found to be either redundant or overly cumbersome. The memo also calls for removing a provision that would have eliminated various boards charged with advising state officials on licensing requirements; and
  • changed the value thresholds that determine which state projects must go before the state Building Commission before being put out to bid.

Rather than deal with these proposals through the state budget, Darling and Nygren said they should be put forward as separate pieces of legislation.

Various Republicans look at the proposal to repeal the state’s remaining prevailing-wage laws as a bit of unfinished business. The state Legislature voted in 2015 to repeal the minimum-pay requirements for projects commissioned by various types of local governments starting this year, but left them intact for state-commissioned road and building projects.

About Dan Shaw, [email protected]

Dan Shaw is the associate editor at The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected] or at 414-225-1807.

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